Louisville’s Bellarmine University is expected to announce a move to Division I athletics on Tuesday. The school teased the announcement on Twitter, calling it “a significant announcement” about its athletic program.
Bellarmine currently has 21 athletic programs that compete at the Division-II level in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. The move up to D-I will be costly but will also allow the school to gain exposure it otherwise couldn’t at the D-II level.
Victor Matheson, a sports economist at College of the Holy Cross, said the impact of a private liberal arts school like Bellarmine moving its athletics programs to D-I is not as large as it may seem.
“Most of the administrators, when they are talking about that move to Division I, that’s what they’re looking for is that exposure and that occasional ability to play kind of in the big time in the big leagues, at least for a game here and there,” Matheson said.
Aside from gaining exposure, Matheson says a move from D-II to D-I is less sensible from a financial standpoint. While the opportunity for revenue sharing through national media deals and postseason tournaments increases in theory, the overall costs to move up in division are greater than any uptick in revenue.
“In almost all cases, especially for small programs like this, you end up with much higher expenses in D-I than any sort of bump in revenue that you get by moving to D-I,” Matheson said. “It’s almost impossible to imagine a situation where the amount of additional revenue you generate is sufficient to cover the amount of additional costs that they will have by being in D-I.”
The Knights men’s lacrosse team is the only program that already competes at the Division I level, where the team plays in the Southern Conference.
According to WDRB, the Knights are expected to move to the Atlantic Sun Conference, which would give the conference 10 basketball teams.
“It’s not going to be much there in the Atlantic Sun,” Matheson said about Bellarmine’s potential for revenue sharing in a new D-I conference. “You’ll have one share of the total revenue from the March Madness tournament. That’s a few million dollars, which, you know, is not nothing but that’s divided up among 10 teams in the conference, so you’re talking about revenue sharing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, not revenue sharing in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Bellarmine has had national success on the basketball court under coach Scott Davenport, who led the Knights to the 2011 D-II National Championship.
“It is absolutely true that those few opportunities you do get to be on the big stage really are these great unifying events at the school that generate a huge amount of excitement,” Matheson said. “Now, again, they only happen once every eight or 10 years, but when you get that shot in the Big Dance, that really is very exciting and unites your campus. It doesn’t bring a lot of money, but it brings you a lot of excitement.”
The move to D-I requires a four-year transition period where athletics programs of schools making the move are not eligible to compete in the NCAA tournaments. They can compete in postseason conference tournaments, and basketball teams can compete in the National Invitational Tournament or the 16-team College Basketball Invitational.
The announcement is scheduled to take place at 11:30 on Bellarmine’s campus Tuesday.
Correction: This post originally stated none of Bellarmine’s athletics programs would be able to participate in post-season play. They will be able to compete in conference play, but not the NCAA tournaments.